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Politics & Prejudices: Tearing apart the social fabric

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"If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."

— John F. Kennedy, Jan. 20, 1961

"Benefits should have strings attached to them ... I said to myself, if they can stay so poor for so many generations ... How smart can they be? They're morons."

— Donald Trump, president-elect, 2016

Ponder how our politics have changed over the past half-century. Eighty-four years ago, this country was in the midst of a depression so terrible the banks were closing.

We were close to revolution, though whether a fascist or a communist one is anything but certain. Then, an aristocrat named Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected, and saved capitalism in this country. He didn't get any credit from the rich for having saved their necks, but he did. The common people got it.

They gave him the biggest landslide ever when he ran for re-election. For generations, they remembered. Even as late as 1988, when Michael Dukakis, one of the weakest Democratic nominees, lost badly, West Virginians voted for him.

They remembered which party saved them from starving to death, saved their unions, saved their country. They didn't pay much attention to the lies about all those on welfare being bums or that government work was by definition worthless and immoral. But almost all those voters are dead now.

West Virginia voted for Trump by an astonishing 69 percent to 27 percent blowout.

Once upon a time, we thought we were all in this together. That's how FDR got Americans to come together during the Depression, and later, during the Second World War.

Twenty years later, JFK thought America was great enough to reach out to the world. "To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves," he said in that deservedly famous inaugural address, adding "because it is right."

Today, our soon-to-be-president wants to build a wall to keep them out. Don't forget this: The nation as a whole didn't want Trump to be president. He got just about exactly the same fraction of the vote as Michael Dukakis — 46 percent.

Millions more voted for Hillary Clinton. But Trump managed to pull off an Electoral College win by the equivalent of a fancy pool shot. Thanks to unhappy blue-collar workers, he carried three states — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan each by less than 1 percent of the vote, and so "won" an electoral majority. Since then, Donald J. Trump has been very clear about what he means to do. He intends to shred much of the fabric of protection for man and the environment that has been built up slowly over most of the last century.

His contempt for the best of what government has done was shockingly visible just in the list of his appointments, as I indicated last week. He is naming an enemy of environmental protection head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Trump wants the U.S. Senate to confirm as secretary of energy a man who wants to abolish the department. (Though presumably not the nuclear weapons it oversees.)

He is naming a foe of the unions as secretary of labor and the nation's top enemy of public education, our own Betsy DeVos, secretary of education, and on and on. This would be almost funny if it was a movie, but it's not.

Trump even encouraged Russia to meddle in our election; they did on his behalf, and nobody much seems to care.

What is hard to understand is ... why?

My theory, simply put, is this:

Franklin Roosevelt was an aristocrat to whom common people could relate. So was JFK — or at least, they idolized him.

But they couldn't relate at all to Hillary Clinton, who seemed to lack warmth, depth, and the common touch, though she originally came from very a middle-class background.

For the last eight years, Barack Obama has had to weather a steady stream of lies, vilifications, and outrageous attacks by the right-wing media and a Republican Party bent on sabotage.

That has taken a toll. But when he first came in, he inspired hope. People are fickle and memories are short, but there are still those who remember that, as his re-election slogan went, "General Motors is alive and Osama bin Laden is dead."

Obama saved the auto industry and saved this region. The economy is in incredible shape compared to what it was when George W. Bush left office. But we've been sold bales and bales of bullshit about how he has ruined this country.

What he has done is to be an immensely classy grown-up, but as time went on, he did seem more remote, and made fewer attempts to get out there and clown around with the fools.

Hillary Clinton could no more do it convincingly than the dowager on Downton Abbey. Trump put on his baseball cap, let his gut hang out, and won over everybody who wanted to give the Ivy League a finger and find someone else to blame.

We'll see how well that goes for him, and us.

By the way, no president has ever had less regard for the Constitution, and Trump wants to go after free speech too.

During the campaign, he said he wanted to "open up our libel laws," so that he can sue journalists who write negative things about him, a thought worthy of Vladimir Putin himself.

We do, however, have this pesky thing called the First Amendment, and centuries of Supreme Court decisions saying he can't do that. For the first time in my life, I'm not at all sure our nation will survive the next four years.

What I am sure about is that it, and we, likely will be damaged to a degree and in ways we can't even guess.

But hey; it shouldn't be boring! Major disasters; human or man-made, seldom are.

State government update

Now for a little good news: The lame-duck session of the legislature did almost none of the terrible things it was feared they might. Attempts to further weaken teacher pensions didn't go anywhere.

Nor did another proposal to go after municipal retirees' healthcare benefits, in part perhaps because of protests by police and firefighters at the Capitol. Even worse, there was an attempt to severely limit benefits to uninsured people catastrophically injured in car accidents. A sudden unholy alliance between hospital and insurance lobbyists tried to ram this through — but failed.

To my surprise, the lawmakers did three good things instead. They passed state Sen. Steve Bieda's law compensating those who turn out to be totally innocent, but who were unfortunately convicted and incarcerated, sometimes for years, for crimes they didn't commit.

They passed bills outlawing the cruel practice of "seclusion and restraint" for children, often autistic, who teachers may find hard to control. And the legislature passed a comprehensive overhaul of the state's energy laws that are aimed at making sure we have a reliable and consistent supply, a package praised by both business and environmental groups, something hard to imagine.

Those are all good things ... but a note of caution. There was no need for the Republican leaders to try and ram the bad stuff through; their control of the legislature will be just as strong next month.

They'll have more time to do their dirty work ... and, after, Jan. 20, no threat of resistance from Washington. And by the way...

Happy New Year.

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